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League Cup: Olympian examples inspire White Swans

Gary Koh

Albirex players march out
Photography courtesy of Albirex Niigata (Singapore)

A tough clash is in store at Clementi Stadium on Sunday evening when Tampines Rovers and Albirex Niigata (Singapore) cross paths in their StarHub League Cup quarterfinals tie.

For the Japanese in particular, this will be an opportunity to make an important statement of intent, after they had surprisingly fallen 0-2 to Geylang United, who were bottom of the league going into this tournament but proceeded to claim top spot in Group B.

That result leaves Albirex with an exceptionally tough task ahead, as they look to continue their defence of the only title they have ever won since coming to Singapore in 2004.

After all, in Tampines they face not only the side currently holding the position of defending champions in the S.League, but also the very team that knocked them out of the RHB Singapore Cup at the quarterfinals stage.

But the young Japanese will be hungry to bounce back following their shock setback at Bedok, and they can draw inspiration from their compatriots, who are flying their country’s flag in the men’s and women’s Olympic football tournament thousands of miles away.

The Nadeshiko, as reigning world champions in the women’s game, have already led the way in silencing pre-tournament favourites Brazil, while the young samurai gave a convincing display on Saturday evening in dismissing African giants Egypt by an emphatic 3-0 margin.

The Japanese have traditionally shown tremendous solidarity in saluting their compatriots, and Albirex are likely to act in the same manner in hoping to do their Olympians proud in their own small way.

White Swans head coach Koichi Sugiyama has been tweaking his lineups to give a few fringe players chances in the starting eleven during the group stage, though it remains to be seen whether he will stick to this approach against fellow league title contenders Tampines.

He was, after all, sighted diligently taking notes on other sides still involved in the League Cup campaign on Saturday, suggesting he wants to see his charges go far and meet one of them in the final.

To do that, he must of course plot a way past Tampines, before taking on either of Geylang United or Gombak United, who play in the other quarterfinals clash taking place on Sunday.

Should the 40-year-old deem the Tampines clash the time to unleash all the firepower he has at his disposal, spectators at Clementi can expect to see regulars Musashi Okuyama, Takeshi Ito and Yasuhiro Yamakoshi getting meaty roles.

And he will be hoping Japan’s pursuit of a golden double at Wembley can rub off on his players as they aim to keep the League Cup at Jurong East for the second successive year.

Tampines probably have other ideas, though, as they aim to complete the first of a targeted domestic treble this season, following a poor continental campaign that saw them crash out of the AFC Cup at the group stage, a first in the club’s proud history.

Their league fortunes have enjoyed a major upturn with the signing of prolific Serbian striker Sead Hadzibulic in mid-season, and the return of former national striker Noh Alam Shah has given the team a major psychological lift as well.

However, 29-year-old Hadzibulic, along with French sweeper Benoit Croissant, has been rested in this tournament, having spent both group matches on the bench from start to finish.

Alam Shah is meanwhile very much finding his feet, despite toiling hard in his three appearances in a Tampines shirt since returning on a mid-season loan from Indonesian club Persib Bandung.

While he has been running all around the pitch and trying to find ways to fit in, he has had little luck dovetailing with Stags captain Aleksandar Duric and livewire Jamil Ali during the group stage.

Tampines head coach Steven Tan has more pressing concerns, though.

With Ali Hudzaifi Yusof rated doubtful after suffering an awkward ankle injury in the team’s 1-1 stalemate with Gombak at Jurong West, Tan could be pressed to send Croissant into action as he seeks a way to contain the White Swans’ passing game.

This becomes even more relevant when one considers the heavy pitch conditions that greeted the Stags back then, a significant contrast to the relatively stable pitch they are used to at Clementi.

While that could smooth the way for Anaz Hadee to feature, even if only as a second-half substitute, Tan could still deem fielding Croissant the wise thing to do, given that there is no more room for error now that the tournament has progressed into the quarterfinals stage.

On the evidence of the first two games on Saturday, teams are beginning to move away from the experimental approach now, so there is every chance Tan and Sugiyama will follow the same path, in order to avoid enduring another lengthy recess that comes with an early exit.

This cup tie is thus well-poised to be the most attractive quarterfinals clash of the four, given the teams’ liking for attractive attacking football played on the ground, and not even the late kickoff will hamper their appetite for success this time.

  • League Cup
  • Albirex Niigata
  • Tampines Rovers